Top Picks of 2014

My reading pace became frenzied in the last months of the year as I read 35% of the 132 books in November and December (26 books this month so far!). But it’s not about quantity, it’s about immersing yourself in the work and coming away with deeper knowledge or appreciation of writing. The range of books consumed was wide this year, so I’ve broken the list into categories, limiting to top 3.

Biography

  • Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
  • Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) by Breanne Fahs
  • Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall

Art and Poetry

  • Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt
  • Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth

Short Stories

  • Beauty Talk & Monsters by Masha Tupisyn
  • Speedboat by Renata Adler
  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel

Contemporary Lit

  • A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett) – Book 1 was also good, but Book 3 a disappointment.

Classics

  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman – no really, read it.
  • Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Philosophy

  • The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861
  • The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer, translated by T. Bailey Saunders
  • A Philosophy of Walking by Gros, translated by John Howe

Society and Culture

  • Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald
  • The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin
  • The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine by Henry Giroux

Feminism

  • Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
  • Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran
  • SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas

History

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman
  • Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson

Top Picks of 2013

It seems like I barely read anything over the last year, and yet I have an oversized list of favorites.
1. Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
This one takes top place because I have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. Master of the Senate by Robert Caro
Caro’s epic achievement of an in-depth profile of LBJ marches on.
3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Historical fiction at its finest
4. Pavilion of Women by Pearl Buck
A woman on her 40th birthday hires a concubine for her husband? Yes, please.
5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’m dumb for never having read this before.
6. Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value by Irving Singer
Nibbled at this one for months, great great stuff.
7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
8. Tenth of December by George Saunders
9. Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles
10. Eight Decades: Essays and Episodes by Agnes Replier
11. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
12. Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis
13. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
14. Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell by Auguste Rodin
15. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
A perfect complement to living in NYC at the beginning of 2013.
Best in Kids’ Literature I read in 2013:
16. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
17. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class

A serendipitous outing at the California Historical Society put me onto MacCannell, after I heard his lecture on how San Francisco has become stale as it rigidly defends its tourist front, how the best parts of the city are those you stumble upon, like the Poem House, or murals in the Mission, or great street art. After some searching, I also found him mentioned in the excellent Reclaiming San Francisco as one of the merry pranksters that took visitors on an un-tour of the city, unleashing them on the casting pools in Golden Gate park to imagine what they were. Some bits I learned from the lecture: the “Mish” dialect in the Mission from the Irish immigrants that was very similar to Brooklynese, the “embalmed palm” bragged on by the Las Vegas architect who stressed palm trees then dunked their root balls into epoxy, the plant sucks the epoxy to its very tips and embalms itself. Also the nature of transitory art, street art that is no longer there, but you can take a visitor to the spot and tell the story of what was, and everyone leaves with a full belly of stories and experiences, chronotopic attraction.

The book is at times painfully packed with everything you’d expect from a PhD dissertation (“The more I examined my data, the more inescapable became my conclusion that tourist attractions are an unplanned typology of structure that provides direct access to the modern consciousness or “world view,” that tourist attractions are precisely analogous to the religious symbolism of primitive peoples”). He argues that tourism is a useful lens through which to understand modernity, noting the transition from valuing the fruits of our labor by the time it takes to produce something to valuing the experience of the product more highly, searching for meaning in life through experiences yet surrounded by the clutter of souvenirs that drive deeper appreciation for the experience. He analyzes the idea of tourism through perspectives of Marxism, semiotics, ethnomethodology and structuralism, and the net result is a deeply thought-out, analytical social criticism of tourism. Below are some tangled quotes and thoughts that struck me.

Cultural productions are powerful agents in defining the scope, force and direction of a civilization. It is only in the cultural experience that the data are organized to generate specific feelings and beliefs. Cultural experiences, then, are the opposite of scientific experiments – opposite in the sense of being mirror images of each other. Scientific experiments are designed to control bias, especially that produced by human beings, out of the result, but cultural experiences are designed to build it in. The attitudes, beliefs, opinions and values studied by sociologists are the residues of cultural experiences, separated from their original contexts and decaying in the minds of individuals. p29

He quotes Max Weber, but I’ve added emphasis where my skin crawls, p33:

No one knows yet who will inhabit this shell [of industrial capitalism] in the future: whether at the end of its prodigious development there will be new prophets or a vigorous renaissance of all thoughts and ideals or whether finally, if none of this occurs, mechanism will produce only petrification hidden under a kind of anxious importance. According to this hypothesis, the prediction will become a reality for the last men of this particular development of culture. Specialists without spirit, libertines without heart, this nothingness imagines itself to be elevated to a level of humanity never before attained.

MacCannell notes the removal of leisure and culture from everyday life and working life, producing “the central crisis of industrial society,” then quotes Edward Sapir (my emphasis, p35):

The great cultural fallacy of industrialism, as developed up to the present time, is that in harnessing machines to our uses it has not known how to avoid the harnessing the majority of mankind to its machines. The telephone girl who lends her capacities, during the greater part of the living day, to the manipulation of a technical routine that has an eventually high efficient value but that answers to no spiritual needs of her own is an appalling sacrifice to civilization. As a solution to the problem of culture she is a failure – the more dismal the greater her natural endowment.

There is an interesting correlation between the removal of culture from work and the huge interest in tourists to see people at work, in authentic situations that are removed from their own daily experience. While the author jokes with a shoeshine man at O’Hare, a mother and son pull up within earshot while the mother points out “Look, he’s working.” Tours of factories, engine rooms, you get the feeling that you are backstage, but in reality you are in a sanitized version of backstage made suitable for the public.

The tourist has no difficulty deciding the sights he ought to see. His only problem is getting around to all of them. Even under conditions where there is no end of things to see, some mysterious institutional force operates on the totality in advance of the arrival of tourists, separating out the specific sights which are the attractions. In the Louvre, for example, the attraction is the Mona Lisa. The rest is undifferentiated art in the abstract. Moderns somehow know what the important attractions are, even in remote places. This miracle of consensus that transcends national boundaries rests on an elaborate set of institutional mechanisms, a twofold process of sight sacralization that is met with a corresponding ritual attitude on the part of the tourists. p 42

…resulting itineraries rarely penetrate lovingly into the precious details of a society…, peeling back layer after layer of local historical, cultural and social facts, although this is the ideal of a certain type of snobbish tourism. Such potential exists in the structure of the tour, but it goes for the most part untapped. Attractions are usually organized more on the model of the filing system of a disinterested observer… the tourist world is complete in its way, but constructed after the fashion of all worlds that are filled with people who are just passing through and know it. p 51

I was unaware of the insanity that happened in 1911 when the last surviving member of a California Indian tribe was brought to live out the remainder of his life in a University of California museum. Ishi, the Indian, excited such interest of people wanting to shake the hand of the last wild man in America, that the museum suggested putting Ishi in an exhibition case during visiting hours to protect him from the crowd.

In highly developed tourist settings such as San Francisco and Switzerland, every detail of touristic experience can take on a showy, back-region aspect, at least for fleeting moments. Tourists enter tourist areas precisely because their experiences there will not, for them, be routine. The local people in the places they visit, by contrast, have long discounted the presence of tourists and go about their business as usual, even their tourist business, as best they can, treating tourists as a part of the regional scenery… In the give-and-take of urban street life in tourist areas, the question of who is watching whom and who is responding to whom can be as complex as it is in the give-and-take between ethnographers and their respondents. p106

This quote struck me as apt, considering what is happening to San Francisco, as the quirky parts of the city are pushed out by high rents. (With regards to London building high-rise hotels to accommodate the millions of tourists): “The irony is, they are destroying the very character and scale of the city their customers are coming to see.” (p 126).
His final paragraph of the 1998 epilogue is worth quoting in full:

It is important to recall that most things that are now attractions did not start out that way. In San Francisco, there was a time when Mission Dolores was just a mission, when Fisherman’s Wharf was just a fisherman’s wharf, when Chinatown was just a neighborhood settled by Chinese. What transformed these places into the centerpieces of the enormous tourist industry of the City of San Francisco? In the beginning it was not hype. The key I have been suggesting is that the place became something more than a spatial coordinate, something more than a spot of protected intimacy for like-minded individuals. It became, in addition, the locus of a human relationship between un-like-minded individuals, the locus of an urgent desire to share – an intimate connection between one stranger and another, or one generation to another, through the local object. It is the “you have got to see this,” or “taste this,” or “feel this” that is the originary moment in the touristic relation, which is also the basis for a certain kind of human solidarity. And it is precisely this moment that has become depersonalized and automated in commercialized attractions – the reason they are at once both powerful and dead. But “the touristic” is always being displaced into new things as cause, source and potential. All that is required is a simultaneous caring and concern for another person and for an object that is honored and shared but never fully possessed.

Top Picks of 2012

This year’s winners are a mixed bunch. A few re-reads from previous years (Naipaul, Kesey), a multi-read within the year (Seneca), a conversion to believer in the cult of DFW (Wallace), deep historical research (Caro), philosophy (Schopenhauer and Belloc), and great story telling (Mistry).

1. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell
This one takes top prize because I read it twice in 2012 and have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. The Path to Rome by Hillaire Belloc
3. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace
4. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
5. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
6. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
7. Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer
8. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Top Picks of 2011

Well into Spring of 2012, I’ve neglected my annual wrap-up. Here ’tis, in all its corroded memory glory. Lots of re-reads made the list, and I went deep into the classics this year.

Winners:
1. Ulysses by James Joyce
2. Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville
3. Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
4. The Notebook by Agota Kristoff
5. Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

Honorable Mentions:
1. You Can’t Win by Jack Black
2. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
3. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
4. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
5. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Worthy Contenders:
1. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
2. My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
4. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
5.1984 by George Orwell
6. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

Top Picks of 2010

Over the last year, I read sixty-two books, and want to mention twenty-four of them here. That means more than one out of every three books I read was worth telling you about. 2010 was a good year!

Winners:
1. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. The Best of Roald Dahl
4. The Big Short by Michael Lewis
5. Yarborough by B.H. Friedman
6. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
7. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Honorable Mentions:
1. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison
2. Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson
3. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
4. Stoner by John Williams
5. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
6. Spooner by Pete Dexter
7. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
8. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
10. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
11. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
12. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Worthy Contenders:
1. I am not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
3. The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
4. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
5. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Top Picks of 2009

I forgot to do the annual wrap-up of favorites from the previous year. Halfway through 2010 already, and 2009 is a dimly-lit corridor with titles I barely remember. That said, here’s what I can conjure from the haze for books I enjoyed reading the most in 2009:

Definitely:
1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
2. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
3. The Tanners by Robert Walser
4. Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson
5. Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
6. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
7. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
8. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Runners-Up:
1. What to Eat by Marion Nestle
2. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
3. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
4. Awesome by Jack Pendarvis
5. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
6. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Top Picks of 2008

It’s that time of year again, when space heaters are on full blast, and I’m looking through the archive to remind myself of all the juicy reading I did in 2008. For your convenience (aw hell, and mine too), here’s my list of the best stuff I read this year.
The Winners
1. The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald
2. What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
3. Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
4. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
5. Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
6. Bad Money by Kevin Phillips
7. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
8. The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
9. Slumberland by Paul Beatty
10. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
11. Resource Wars by Michael Klare
12. The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

Top Picks of 2007

By request, for those extremely lazy folks out there who let me do their reading for them. Here are my top picks for last year (not that the books were published in 2007, but that I consumed them then). It’s all about me, you see.
The Winners
1. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
2. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
3. Jenny and the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willett
4. Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
5. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
The Honorable Mentions
1. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
2. Flash Fiction Forward by James Thomas
3. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
4.
Down & Out in Paris & London by George Orwell
5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
6. The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

Top Picks of 2006

Here are my top picks for 2006.
The Winners
1. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
2. The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and other stories by Julia Slavin
3. River of Doubt by Candice Millard
4. To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel
5. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Honorable Mentions
1. On Seeing and Noticing by Alain de Botton
2. Women by Charles Bukowski
3. Andes to the Amazon by Bruce Junek
4. Ask the Dust by John Fante
5. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
6. Legends by Robert Littell
7. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
8. Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
9. Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

Top Picks of 2005

Here are my top picks for 2005.
The Winners
1. The Pacific by Mark Helprin
2. The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey
3. Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox
4. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
6. Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Honorable Mentions
1. Poet of the Appetities by Joan Reardon
2. The Middle Mind by Curtis White
3. Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith
4. The Light of Day by Graham Swift

Top Picks of 2004

Here are my top picks for 2004.
The Winners
1. The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer
2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The Honorable Mentions
1. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
2. All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki
3. The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn
4. Black Money by Ross Macdonald

LZ enjoys…

This is a list of my recent favorites; also check out the list of annual Best-ofs.
(Updated Aug 2014, just covering the best books I’ve read over last 8 months)
Dwight MacDonal’s collection of essays are stunning
Masha Tupisyn’s Beauty Talk & Monsters
Barbara Tuchman’s history of the 14th century
Renata Alder’s Speedboat
Really anything by Virginia Woolf, but Death of the Moth is a good place to start.
Thoreau’s Journals
Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook
Megan Marshall’s bio of Margaret Fuller

As of June 2011:
Yarborough by B.H. Friedman
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Consider the Oyster by MFK Fisher
You Can’t Win by Jack Black
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Pacific by Mark Helprin
Women by Charles Bukowski
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
The Tanners by Robert Walser
The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald
What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer

Top Picks of 2003

Here are my top picks for 2003.
The Winners
1. Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
2. The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox
3. Consider the Oyster by M.F.K Fisher
4. The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
5. Birds of America by Mary McCarthy
The Honorable Mentions
1. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
2. The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten
3. Why Girls are Weird by Pamela Ribon
4. One up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch
5. Jarhead
6. Salt
7. Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi

Top Picks of 2002

1. The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
2. Being Dead by Jim Crace
3. A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul
4. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
5. You Can’t Win by Jack Black
6. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
7. Into a Desert Place by Graham MacKintosh
8. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
9. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
10. The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
11. The Prime of Miss Jean Brody by Muriel Spark